Panthers, stars from NC colleges and high schools highlight Senior Bowl

Matt Rhule coached one of the teams in Alabama showcase

Duke tight end Noah Gray of Duke reaches for a pass while defended by Syracuse defensive back Ifeatu Melifonwu during the American team practice for last weekend’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. (Rusty Costanza / AP Photo)

The Carolina Panthers got a jump start on the 2021 NFL Draft at last week’s Senior Bowl.

While the rest of the NFL was limited to sending 10 representatives to evaluate and interview the nearly 140 prospects in attendance, the Panthers and Dolphins sent their entire coaching staffs. Matt Rhule and the rest of the Panthers coaches were in charge of the American team, which lost to the Dolphins-coached National team 27-24 in Saturday’s game.

The Panthers coaches got the chance to spend extensive time with the players on the American squad — which included standouts such as Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond, Northwestern linebacker Paddy Fisher and Clemson receiver Amari Rodgers — in meetings and on-field work throughout the week leading up to game day.

“You get a sense for the guys,’’ Rhule said. “It’s one thing to watch, another to coach them, but to hear (Panthers offensive line coach Pat) Meyer say, ‘Hey, do this, because this is what we do in Carolina,’ and then see the guy do it, I would just say it’s been unbelievably invaluable.’’

The experience was also valuable for many prospects who were either raised or went to college in North Carolina. Here’s a look at some of the local connections to the first stop of the NFL Draft journey for this year’s aspiring rookies.

Michael Carter, UNC running back: After skipping the Orange Bowl to prepare for the draft, Carter made the most of his first opportunity. He had eight carries for 60 yards and a 12-yard touchdown in the game while also catching two passes for 15 yards. He also made several defenders miss on a 27-yard run. He was also one of the prospects who helped himself the most during the week’s practice sessions, according to a consensus of observers.

Chazz Surratt, UNC linebacker: The Tar Heels’ top defensive player also skipped the Orange Bowl. He impressed scouts with his ability in pass coverage early in the week, although he missed practice time as the week went on and didn’t play in the game.

Sage Surratt, Wake Forest wide receiver: Chazz’s brother also missed practice and game time and, according to some observers, struggled in passing drills early in the week, although he was able to take coaching and make improvements as the week wore on.

Carlos Basham, Wake Forest defensive end: Even though he sat out Saturday’s game, Boogie may have been one of the week’s biggest winners. He dominated during the drills all week, excelling both on the outside and in the trenches. CBSSports said that he was already considered a first-round prospect and likely wrapped up a spot in the top 20 picks.

Jamie Newman, Wake Forest quarterback: After opting out this past season following a transfer to Georgia, Newman is taking his shot at the NFL. Throwing passes in front of an audience for the first time in 400 days, Newman was inconsistent. He impressed early in the week but ended up throwing four interceptions in practices. He was better in the actual game, completing 11 of 14 for 118 yards, a touchdown and a pick. He was also sacked four times and fumbled once.

Noah Gray, Duke tight end: The Blue Devils’ record holder for career catches at tight end impressed during the week, showing off his hands with some spectacular catches, including a one-handed grab that went viral on Twitter. He didn’t have any catches in the game but certainly helped himself during drills.

Bryan Mills, NC Central cornerback: He earned the dubious honor of being the lightest player on weigh-in and measurement day at 180 pounds. Combined with his FCS playing career, he’ll likely have to face questions about whether he’s sturdy enough to stand up to the wear and tear of the NFL. He made his case with four solo tackles in the game, however.

D’Ante Smith, East Carolina offensive lineman: He sat out the game with a thumb injury but helped himself on the scale. After playing at 274 pounds this year, he packed on 20 pounds of muscle. He also had positive length measurements for his arms and hands, showing scouts that he had the size to compete in NFL trenches. He was also aggressive and quick in drills, impressing observers.

Cornell Powell, Greenville, Clemson wide receiver: He had two catches for 42 yards in the game and impressed during drills.

Landon Dickerson, Hickory, Alabama center: He didn’t participate, still recovering from an ACL injury, but met with teams.

Divine Deablo, Winston-Salem, Virginia Tech defensive back: He had six tackles, five solo, in the game and impressed all week.

Hamsah Nasirildeen, Concord, Florida State defensive back: After being limited to two games this year due to injury, he returned to the field and showed he was healthy with several big plays during the week. He had three tackles in the game.

Larry Rountree III, Raleigh, Missouri running back: He had four carries for seven yards in the game to go with two catches for 19. He showed flashes during the week as well.